You Oughta Know Better

By 1995, Brenda Walsh had disappeared from Beverly Hills, 90210 to pursue her theatre dreams in London. In November, Sassy, the feminist rag that masqueraded as a teen magazine, had released its last “real” issue before being sold to the owners of Teen and revamped as just another crappy glossy pandering to the prom queens. The riot grrl movements had peaked, and such bands as Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, and Bikini Kill were losing what little media coverage they’d earned.

I knew of the movement mostly from Sassy. Despite generally shunning the media for misrepresenting their politics and music, I knew many big grrl bands nevertheless consented to appear because of cameos in Sassy‘s pages via its Cute Band Alert. But as Alison Wolfe, Bratmobile’s lead singer explained, the riot grrls movement “was never meant for the cheerleaders, it was never meant for the mainstream”. But where did that leave teenagers like me, whose mothers weren’t going to drive them 60 miles to see Bay Area Bikini Kill shows and whose local Wherehouses and Sam Goodys didn’t stock Heavens to Betsy? By not selling out, the riot grrls left suburban mall rats like me without their good influences.

Around the same that Sassy was crumbling, my Dad was in the midst of a mid-life crisis, and bulked up his music collection with “what the kids are listening to”. He would pack me in his Corvette and crank up some Smashing Pumpkins while I slouched in my seat. In an effort to diminish my outcast status, my Dad tried to introduce me to popular music by pimping the music of my day, and, by extension, “encouraging” a social popularity that couldn’t have interested me less. He’d say, “Have you heard Blind Melon? Kids love ’em. They’re great!” While pillaging his CD stash for something listenable, I found a copy of Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette, and in an effort to fill the media void left by Brenda and Sassy, for whatever reason nabbed it and put it in constant rotation.

To me at 15, this was a revolutionary album: sexually charged lyrics, angry outbursts, and subdued lust. I had never heard such things verbalized by a 20-year-old woman before. Not only did I memorize the lyrics, but also every whiney inflection of Morissette’s voice, and to this day I can do a bully karaoke version of “You Oughta Know”.

I didn’t discover real feminist punk rock until I was 18, when a boyfriend, tired of me blasting Jagged Little Pill on headphones and muffling my sing-along face-down in a pillow, insisted that I give Sleater-Kinney a try, which spawned interest in the earlier riot-grrl bands and Bust, a magazine that trumpeted the same values of Sassy to the new, older me. Jagged Little Pill packs in a bite of rebellion, whereas Bikini Kill is a five-course meal of grrl mutiny that, with songs such as “I Like Fucking”, would have been hard to sneak past my parents. Morissette smoothed her roughest edges for mass consumption, but she primed me for the real cunt-punk rock that I would encounter later. She created music that could be stolen from my dad and validated my growing rage for gender inequity — that’s subversive.

Feminist rockers L7 called the music of Morissette and her Lilith Fair cohorts “PMS fraud rock”. While its frustrating that the burgeoning third-wave feminism of the early ’90s underground gave way to poetaster acts like Jewel and Sarah MacLachlan, and while it pains me that I have to discount everything Morissette has since said and done to maintain this belief, I still hold that Jagged Little Pill is pure feminist punk rock. Feminists, myself included, don’t regard anger for a male lover as the ultimate incarnation of female rage, but it’s a form that was familiar to me at 15. Compared to the riot grrls, Morissette’s lyrics were mild, but that’s why she got radio play and consequently earned entrance into my father’s collection and my life. Whether something is feminist is perhaps better measured by that thing’s effects than its intent: Morissette validated my desire to not “be the bandage if the wound is not mine”, calling herself — and me — out as, “an underestimated and impatient little girl / raising her hand”.

Despite its ubiquity amongst sniffling, jilted sorority girls, “You Oughta Know” is a breakup song to rule them all with furious sexual jealousy (“Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?”), and revenge (“And every time I scratch my nails down someone else’s back / I hope you feel it… well can you feel it?”). The sheer sauciness of prefacing a cold break in music with “Why are you so petrified of silence? / Here can you handle this?” is empowering, and yes, so are lyrics about going down on someone in a theatre, just as it was empowering when Liz Phair declared herself a “blow job queen” on Exile in Guyville. Power is having something that someone else wants, and most men can’t blow themselves.

Now, Morissette can’t pull off punk any better than Morrissey pulls off straight, but she doesn’t really try, and therein the punk lies. Jagged Little Pill was created by Morissette, who wrote the lyrics and Glenn Ballard, who wrote and arranged the music. True, bringing a seasoned record producer like Ballard on board is not especially DIY, and writing breakup songs reportedly about Dave Coulier of the TV sitcom Full House isn’t quite outsider, but Morissette’s balls-out wailing of lyrics like “You took me out to wine, dine, 69 me / But didn’t hear a damn word I said” are assertively punk. “Perfect” was recorded imperfectly in one attempt — which actually is ironic, unlike, say, “10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife.” She hits some off-notes and caterwauls roughly in moments, but the original take remains as is on the album, giving a desperately sad feeling that in all its plain honesty is totally punk rock.

Now, like George Lucas pawing at the negatives of the original Star Wars trilogy or Liz Phair mixing with the Matrix, Morissette is re-releasing Jagged Little Pill as an acoustic album in June and giving Starbucks exclusive rights to sell it for the first six weeks of its release. While the album probably would have had the same effect on me if it were a capella, I wouldn’t change a thing about it — not even the wimpy synthesizer backing — for the world. Morissette’s comments during a 2004 interview with VH1 about her newly softened image and her romance with Ryan Reynolds of The Amityville Horror fame — “It doesn’t mean the competent and powerful feminist isn’t still within me. It’s still there whenever I want it” — infuriate the feminist I am today. Feminism isn’t an occasional event or expression; it’s a persistent demand for equality implicit in everything I do. I wouldn’t deny now how much that album meant to me. But neither will I indulge a version so drained of its meaning that it can provide ambiance for corporate coffeehouses.